Do Dogs and Cats Get Embarrassed?
Your pet may hide under the bed after getting an unflattering haircut, look away when they’re caught scratching at the carpet, or seem bashful in that adorbs Halloween costume. But is that embarrassment? Or something else?
The Emotional Life of Pets
It’s pretty clear to anyone who has a cat or dog in their family that they have emotions, which they express through their body language and behavior. Dogs wag their tails and even their whole butts when they’re overjoyed. Cats purr loudly and snuggle in when they’re happily enjoying a good cuddle.
Our pets also express negative emotions. For instance, dogs tend to crouch down and cower when they’re frightened. Cats will arch their backs and stick up their tails to appear more intimidating when they’re scared. Pets can act jealous too. You may have experienced this if your pet ever nosed a child or another pet out of the way to grab your attention for themselves.
But embarrassment is more complicated than other emotions. Sure, that look your pet gives when you catch them in the act may resemble embarrassment. However, you might not have an embarrassed dog or cat on your hands.
What Is Embarrassment?
According to Psychology Today, embarrassment is an uncomfortable feeling that comes up when we think we’ve made a personal or social faux pas. This emotion may serve a purpose by helping us learn not to repeat that mistake. Additionally, the physical signs of embarrassment, such as blushing and sweating, can signal others that you’re aware of your gaffe and make them less likely to pass judgment.
Two emotions that are often linked to embarrassment are shame and guilt. Shame is a lot like embarrassment in that it is a self-conscious emotion. It requires an awareness of how someone else is perceiving you. Guilt is different in that it tends to focus on a specific action or behavior rather than your image in the eyes of others.
All three of these emotions require an understanding of the inner workings of our pets’ minds, which is something we don’t have quite yet. There just isn’t any definitive research that can tell us whether or not our pets have such complex emotions.
That forlorn look on your pet’s face is probably not embarrassment but their response to your reaction. They may be trying to melt your heart and get out of trouble.
Sometimes we think we understand our pets’ emotions, but we’re actually attributing human characteristics to them. This is called anthropomorphism. It’s not uncommon, and it can be a useful way to bond with our pets. We chat with our dogs when we take long walks and discuss our day with our cats as they rest beside us. It’s easy to feel like they get us even though they don’t understand our words.
While there’s typically nothing wrong with anthropomorphism, it can be misleading to think we know what animals are feeling. It’s usually not a big deal with it comes to our pets, but it can be dangerous when we’re talking about potentially harmful wild animals. For instance, if a bear approaches you during a hike, it’s certainly not safe to think they’re looking at you as a friend and approach them with confidence.
Why Is Pet Shaming Trending?
You may have seen pictures of seemingly embarrassed cats or dogs with signs like, “I pooped on the bathmat” or “I ate mommy’s shoes” trending on social media. These pet shaming posts tend to trend on because they garner plenty of likes and comments. But they’re not likely to keep the pet from doing it again.
Obviously, pet shaming is not a recommended way to train your pet. Our pets don’t really understand what’s going on, and they certainly can’t read the sign. A better way to train your pet is through positive reinforcement. Give your four-legged friend rewards like treats and lots of praise when they’re doing the right thing.
Clicker training, where you make a clicking noise with a device to acknowledge good behavior, can be a useful way to train your pet.
The Science Behind Pet Emotions
There’s not much research to help us understand whether or not our dogs have complex emotions. However, there are some studies that look at how well we can interpret the emotions of dogs and vice versa.
One study showed that humans can recognize emotions in dogs, but our ability to do so was tied into our experience with them. Children, especially those who never had a pet, weren’t very good at knowing what a dog was feeling. Adults fared much better, particularly if they had a dog in their lives. This research also indicated that we’re better at detecting positive emotions such as joy and happiness than negative ones like fear in our dogs.*
Another study demonstrated that dogs can recognize how we’re feeling using our facial expressions.+ In this study, dogs tilted their heads and had an elevated heart rate and tilted head when they looked at human faces expressing strong emotions, including anger, fear, and happiness.
A dog’s ability to understand us can be traced back over 30,000 years. That’s when wolves began coming to human camps for food and began to evolve into domesticated dogs.
What’s That Emotion?
While there are big gaps in our understanding of our pet’s emotional landscape, there are things we can do to help decipher what they’re feeling.
- Observe their behaviors. Changes in behavior, like a sudden loss of interest in meals or playtime, can signal that your pet is feeling depressed or anxious. It can also indicate a health condition, so you may want to check in with your vet.
- Watch their body language. How your pet holds their ears, head, body, and tail can tell you a lot about how they’re feeling in the moment.
- Spend time with them. The more time you spend time with your pet, the better you’ll be able to pick up on their cues and notice if something changes for them.
While we don’t know enough to tell if our pets feel complicated emotions like embarrassment, that certainly won’t change how much we love them! And that’s truly something great.
*Amici, F., Waterman, J., Kellermann, C.M. et al. "The ability to recognize dog emotions depends on the cultural milieu in which we grow up"
+Siniscalchi, M., d’Ingeo, S. & Quaranta, A. “Orienting asymmetries and physiological reactivity in dogs’ response to human emotional faces”